How did mainstream liberals lose their direction (and cojones)?
September 18, 2011 2:16 PM   Subscribe

[Distraught Progressive Filter] I need a postmortem on liberalism in the United States.

[Feel free not to agree with me regarding my fundamental assumptions about conservatism, but please take arguments to Talk or MeMail, and respect the point of this question. I'm interested in relevant answers, though they needn't be flattering ones. Thank you.]

Background: I've been reading about right wing politics; the psychological motivations (e.g. Fromm's Escape from Freedom, Blumenthal's Republican Gomorra, Zaitchik's Common Nonsense), the ideology which — for lack of a better term — informs the perspective (Ayn Rand, Hobbes, Schaeffer, Hayek, Adam Smith), and the think tanks which translate the dystopian philosophies into mainstream propaganda.

But it's difficult to draw a bead on the current state of things only studying one side's pathology. I have plenty of left-progressive texts in my library; while many of them can eschew the trite idealism of, say, stinking hippies, and provide systematic ideas, they remain impersonal and disinterested in the specifics of how the progressive mindset has evolved. It doesn't tell me anything about how the leftist mainstream got how it is today.

Bear with me (or stop reading), as I'm operating under the premise that something has gone deeply wrong with progressives/liberals/leftists/Democrats, in terms of their ability to clearly see and push a clear ideological framework; to stick to their convictions, and stop reflexively responding to every little twitch of reactionary bullflop chucked out by right wing PR flacks.

Coming finally to the question, how did this happen? How did we lose a firm, unshakable belief in human rights, labor, social issues, and start blindly making compromises that deign to acknowledge validity in bankrupt ideas we thought we defeated decades ago? I'm aware of Reagan and the rise of neoconservatism; what I don't know is what psychological circumstances lead us to what our views were, and how they easily degenerated into appeasement.

I want to read about the socio-psychological development of progressives, and how it's become such a strange, scatter-shot movement, with no clear purpose — at least over the aggregate of mainstream culture. I hope it goes without saying, but I'll dismiss anything by imbeciles like Beck, Coulter, Malkin, O'Reilly, et al. I'm looking for something much more nuanced and detailed.

Apologies for the broad request; it's the best I could describe it.
posted by evil holiday magic to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
posted by one_bean at 2:27 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

How did it happen? The advent of cable news networks, especially Fox News, and its spread to the internet to fortify the idle cable news viewer. A media grand slam of propaganda, shifting the entire political spectrum to the right and causing liberals to shake in their boots with uncertainty. It's not only liberals affected, the entire spectrum.
posted by nogero at 2:31 PM on September 18, 2011

Best answer: I highly recommend Rick Perlstein's fantastic Nixonland for a historical view on how the liberal movement changed in the 1960s and 70s with the advent of civil rights and the counterculture (and how the right wing took advantage of those changes). It might be going too far back to specifically mention progressivism, but a lot of what is called "progessive" now is just good old liberal politics of the sort that he discusses at length. It really is a brilliant book, and not dry at all - it's a very enjoyable read, even if the content is pretty depressing at times.
posted by dialetheia at 2:49 PM on September 18, 2011

Best answer: Please forgive the following stream of consciousness:
Setting aside, as you requested, a dissection of how the right wing has developed its winning strategies since Reagan...

I believe one of the components of the left's demise has been a demographic shift which began in the late 1960s. In some ways, the "Old Guard" of leftist politics in America was supported by a predominantly white, male labor movement. Some New Deal policies only went through after FDR made concessions to overtly racist constituents, which effectively excluded blacks and Mexican immigrants.

Organized labor as a social force has declined in line with the decline of U.S. manufacturing. At the same time, women, racial minorities, gays and other marginalized groups increasingly petitioned for civil rights and social acceptance.

The Democratic party is, in a way, a "catch-all" for liberal causes from all different groups with distinct needs and interests. The Democrats are spread very thin. The white, male, working-class base no longer sees its needs as being paramount; in fact, no single group within the left can ever be satisfied when it is competing for attention with so many other groups.

With such a diverse set of constituents, it's hard to find one leader who is all things to all people, when there are so many different walks of life. Remember how intense it was in '08 between Obama and Hillary? Some subgroups of Democrats are even in ideological opposition to each other. For instance, Roman Catholics have voted Democratic for decades, yet might not agree on abortion, gay marriage, etc.

Finally, it's hard to create a single narrative which will inspire and appeal to all the people who identify as liberals. Not to turn this examination back towards the Republicans, but one thing they have got in the bag is narrative. They decided 30 years ago that they would pretty much dispense with catering to anyone but one magic demographic: white working-class Protestant Christians. Because they have chosen their audience, and tacitly said, "Fuck you!" to all the other groups in the country, they don't have to worry about being all things to all people. If they tell a story about Christmas and pickup trucks and flags, they don't worry about how that will play to the Jews, lesbians, cyclists, vegans, etc. This makes life much, much easier for them, without even getting into all the truly Machiavellian scheming they do.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:53 PM on September 18, 2011 [11 favorites]

Here is an article from the New York Times in 1994 after Jerry Rubin died jaywalking. It mentions Jane Fonda and Sonny Bono as other liberals who joined the mainstream.
posted by bukvich at 2:58 PM on September 18, 2011

Hobbes is right-wing? Really?

no no no the "death" of liberalism in the US has nothing to do with anything written by any enlightenment thinkers like Smith or Hobbes. Smith is actually not as "markets in everything" as you've been led to believe.

The Right and their victories over the left are much about the growth of the "the family" and the "The Paranoid Style in American Politics".

Now if you want to read some of the thought that is behind the policies of the conservatives who work through that - in addition to Hayek and Schumpeter you should also read guys like Michael Novak. (I'd like to think no one takes Rand seriously, but alas I'm pretty sure I'm wrong)
posted by JPD at 2:58 PM on September 18, 2011

Two things: It has lost its humanity by betraying its roots in Catholic social teaching, and it has been completely embarrassed by the tragic outcomes of its social experiments everywhere in the world. Everyone's left clinging to and fighting over driftwood. Or to use another analogy, when the party's almost over, only the drunks remain.
posted by michaelh at 3:01 PM on September 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We lost the core that held the left together.

That core, especially working class labor, dissipated with the passage of civil rights, leaving behind a bickering group of small satellites unmoored in the absence of the mother planet. These smallish satellites (environmentalists, gay people, intellectuals, animal-rights sorts, small minorities, the very communally minded, etc.) are outside of the human mainstream and can only flourish when tethered to the bulwark that is labor and the working class/lower middle class. (This is not to disparage these satellite groups, I belong to most of them.)

I've sadly come to think that evolution has not yet removed tribalism from the human animal. America is just too large and too diverse and too fundamentally racist. The white working class stayed within the left as long as they didn't have to accept the outsider into their midst. When confronted with the idea that they may be entering a compact with the hated other, they cut off their noses to spite their faces and switched sides. I think my point is borne out by the fact that the most homogeneous European societies are also the ones that have the most successful social democracies and welfare states.

Tony Judt thought that Europe's half-century of relative stability can be attributed to the fact that WW2 homogenized most European nations. Now that Europe is once again becoming increasingly mixed, you're seeing the left falter, with resurgent right-wing populism (I'd even call it fascism) in countries like Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and so on.

My one source of hope is global urbanization which will hopefully lead to such thorough interbreeding that the notion of race will become silly, and hopefully generations of urban people will become a little more comfortable with "the other." This, unfortunately, could take a while.
posted by tempythethird at 3:40 PM on September 18, 2011 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I've been hearing this theory that the reason we lack a progressive youth protest movement in the states is due to student loan debt. This interview with a clinical psychologist might help explain why the left is so absent from national politics compared to previous generations.
posted by wowbobwow at 3:45 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of it is that the left doesn't have any great issues to sell these days. Gay marriage is important but it's a much harder sell than Civil Rights in terms of humanitarian outrage. The draft (and 9/11) made it much easier to loathe Vietnam than Iraq. The New Deal required the Great Depression. Communism was a better enemy than Islamic terrorism in some ways. The whole abortion issue is like an eternal Battle of the Somme that has consumed energy and attention way beyond its objective importance considering the status quo is a reasonable compromise.

I'm painting with a very broad brush, and I'm not trying to say this is the whole explanation, but my point is that liberalism doesn't have any great burning issues right now. I mean they do have them from their point of view, but they are harder sells to the people who need to be convinced to give a fuck. And honestly I think the attempt to keep pushing and hard selling has created some backlash.

Which is another way of saying that there are too many stubbornly dumb Americans out there.
posted by fleacircus at 3:46 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. (As nogero mentioned) 24-hour news channel infotainment constantly reinforcing the colorful soundbite over those unsatisfying gray conclusions of critical thought, e.g. Clinton blowjobs were far more entertaining and easy to understand than, say, the Iran-Contra affair, which had only the tiniest bit of T&A and was boring and confusing like a math teacher droning on and on and on, and if it were a TV show it would have been cancelled before the first of six hundred loud commercials for Chevy's hottest new pick-ups.

1. (b) ...Which in turn fostered a prevailing national attitude wherein only dorks and losers read or think or care. Jocks, tough guys, sexy celebs were the only telegenic heroes. Make "liberal" and "feminist" the ugliest words. Roll your eyes or look like you're going to spit when you say them. [*cue live studio audience applause*].

2. Reagan's coup of exploiting religious/social issues (that the divorced Hollywood actor probably did not give two shits about) to make poor people vote Republican.

3. Some bullshit story about a dumb lady who spilled hot coffee and sued McDonalds for $9,999 billion dollars (although it didn't real happen, but who cares about boring details when the outrage is that delicious!) which finally gave average, working class people what they had always hoped for: A chance to align themselves with their big business overlords and scrutinize other average, working class people.

4. 9-11.

5. U.S. democracy was successful in the 60's and 70's, admirably driving power from the moneyed gentry to the historically un-empowered and/or simply average, including a lot of undereducated people who now (motivated by 1-4, above) vote in great, teeming numbers to return that power to the moneyed gentry.

6. My god, I'm too depressed to continue...
posted by applemeat at 3:48 PM on September 18, 2011

I haven't read it, but it sounds like Chris Hedges's Death of the Liberal Class talks about exactly this.
posted by overglow at 4:22 PM on September 18, 2011

If you're looking for something to read to balance Blumenthal et. al., try "Liberal Fascism".

Or pretty much anything by Thomas Sowell.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:23 PM on September 18, 2011

How did we lose a firm, unshakable belief in human rights, labor, social issues,

You cannot lose something that never existed. The history of most any cause you'd care to label as "progressive" is riddled with losses and compromises, and sometimes arose from sources we would not today consider very progressive at all.

and start blindly making compromises that deign to acknowledge validity in bankrupt ideas we thought we defeated decades ago?

...such as the New Deal, which was explicitly a compromise with Southern racist whites. Or the New Deal, which turned from its short term successes strongly towards attempting to balance the budget again.

Not to say there hasn't been a change, but I think you're overstating it by looking only at the highlights and successes of the progressive and New Deal eras and comparing them to the compromises you can see happening around you. The political equivalent of thinking that movies of the 1940s or 1950s were uniformly far superior to those of today, because Casablanca is better than Transformers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:31 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

One other thing, literally the billions of dollars poured into right wing think tanks since the early 1970s. This has had a fairly significant impact on public discourse, so much so that fringe ideas like supply side economics become mainstream orthodoxy.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 6:10 PM on September 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

This thinking comes dangerously close to, if not falling right into, what I call the logical fallacy of "The Good Ol Days".

What first prompted me to believe in such an idea as a general logical fallacy surrounding such thoughts is that the narrative of the right wing often contains references to a "good ol days" they are calling for a return to which in fact, never existed.

I think, but I willing to be wrong proven about this, you might be searching for a "good ol days" of liberalism, that in fact, never existed, which might fall into the logical fallacy I have described.
posted by roboton666 at 6:43 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @roboton666
You may be right about the fallacy. What matters to me is how we got to wherever it is we are now. Assuming there was a here or a we, though perhaps you're saying there isn't and wasn't.

I had to start somewhere in framing the question; I think I have some food for thought, maybe also in reframing the question as I consider it.

If you look at something like "Escape from Freedom," there's a clear psychological premise regarding how fascism and extreme right wing ideology isn't only tolerated, but enthusiastically promoted and clung to, by people of a certain personality.

If the left is scattered, I want to know why, fundamentally, it is so. Maybe there's no formula for deficient cohesion, by definition. I could flatter the left by categorizing them individualists, or I could, as others have suggested, explore the reasoning that post labor, there were only disparate interests (with no clear indication that people subscribing to them were independent thinkers, but rather given to their own conformist groups, only appearing autonomous by their relatively small size).
posted by evil holiday magic at 8:51 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You asked for readings, so here's one: George Lakoff's Moral Politics. It's about the metaphor systems used by liberals and conservatives, and how the latter have successfully reframed many debates with purely conceptual or linguistic means (e.g. reframing all government action as "taxes", a bad thing).

Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal is worth reading as a how-did-we-get-here book.

I'd contest some of your assumptions, particularly the idea that there used to be some period when what we'd now call liberalism was the consensus. There used to be more of a consensus on the New Deal, yes-- and really there still, is, narrowly: most Americans are in favor of social security, the FDIC, etc. Remember that the South used to be part of Roosevelt's coalition, and got peeled off largely due to, well, everything that happened in the '60s. (For conservatives, it's always 1968.)

By its nature, progressivism always has to reinvent itself. You can't base a coalition based on antitrust laws and suffragism any more, because those battles were won. No one is really attacking Social Security seriously (yet), so people aren't going to have rallies to defend it. The civil rights movement accomplished its major goals. You can be a conservative forever since there's always new things to oppose, but liberalism is always asked "What have you done for me lately?"

But look on the bright side: as the GOP get crazier and crazier, people tire of it sooner. It took about fifty years for people to tire of Liberalism; they were tired of George Bush in six.
posted by zompist at 9:08 PM on September 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you're not already familiar with his documentaries, MeFi favorite Adam Curtis offers a range of wholistic political critiques that often implicate liberal elites. (less so, generally, than they implicate right wing ideas, but he's critical of almost everyone)

The Century of the Self is probably the most relevant to your question.
posted by ropeladder at 9:27 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The left has allowed the right from giving the impression (true or not, and I'd say not) that it is on the side of Christianity. This is an incredible political weakness given over 75% of Americans identify as Christian.

The left needs to do a better job of articulating its positions from a Christian context otherwise they are going to be fighting a rearguard action for the foreseeable future.
posted by pseudonick at 12:24 AM on September 19, 2011

add "or failed to prevent" between 'allowed' and 'right.'
posted by pseudonick at 12:26 AM on September 19, 2011

Best answer: The left is weak and scattered because they fail to perform the rituals which are vital to creating and maintaining tribal cohesion. The right do these very well; they have a very simple story to tell their children, which establishes the basis of their collective identity and worldview: America is an exceptional nation blessed and ordained by a very real God, whose creation was the sublime turning point in the history of mankind's spiritual and philosophical development. It is where man, guided by the genius and divine inspiration of the Founding Fathers, cast off the tyrannical bonds of both kings and priests. No words ever struck so deeply into the human heart, and have so changed the world: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." This spirit of pure self-determination is exemplified by our ancestors who left the Old Country to settle this nation. Through toil and hardship, they transformed the boundless frontier and its God-given abundance into the most productive nation the world has ever seen. Our grandparents harnessed this spiritual and material might to save the world from self-destruction twice. They, along with our parents, unleashed the power of the Free Market Economy to enjoy the greatest period of peace and prosperity the world has ever known. Unfortunately, sometime in the 1960's, various malcontents began to appear on the national stage. These wretches, led by Soviet-sympathizing academics, saw our moral foundations, and the material richness that has flowed from them, as things to be mocked, diminished, pitied, and crippled. With the cooperation of greedy and cynical agitators from labor unions and civil rights groups, the malcontents gained considerable political power in the 1970's. They began to exercise this power to erode and dismantle the American Spirit itself, in ways both blatant and subtle. When all hope seemed to be lost, President Reagan reintroduced us to the Spirit, and once again, the torch of liberty burned bright, and the engine of the Free Market Economy carried us to new, unimaginable heights. It was through Reagan's faith in God, his unshakable belief in the words of the Founding Fathers, and his trust in the ingenuity and self-determination of the American people that our nation once again became great. It is his example we must always cherish and carry forward: "Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have."


Until the left can deeply root their narrative in a Christian ethic and the mythology of our nation's founding, and project true warmth and optimism, their memes will be comparatively superficial and weak.
posted by blargerz at 1:05 AM on September 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

The fall of the Soviet Union. This removed two things: any real visible alternative to the capitalist order, and the left's "bad cop". The establishment right always has the "bad cop" of violent nationalism to play off of, to say "if you don't throw us a bone, we'll bring out these guys", while the left got used to outsourcing that. And now the left has no credible threat behind it ("If you don't try to appease the working class, they may turn to the Communists"), and no real vision for a future alternative order, which is why you're getting all these posters suggesting the left fall back on tribalist shit: they don't have a real vision for a future order either. "Like it is now, but with health care." That's not a future society. You don't say the year 2100 will be like it is now, but with health care. That doesn't work. So, the left is in disarray.

The civil rights decline has a different dimension, more to do with our ability to distance ourselves from physical suffering: as suffering, and the viewing of suffering, becomes increasingly optional (even though it never ultimately is, we just hide it), we become more fearful of suffering, to the point that the idea that someone would choose to suffer for abstract principles has become almost ludicrous. Look at heroes in current movies: they're motivated by defending the familial unit, their brothers in arms, their home, lovers, but ideals? They laugh at those. That's where the zeitgeist is. And defending civil rights is precisely about suffering for abstract ideals: if your own personal civil rights are currently being non-abstractly violated, you're in no position to defend them. So liberty is ditched for security.

The decline of the media also has a lot to do with it.
posted by furiousthought at 1:51 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think others have hit on some key reasons for your broad outline of a question (ideology changes, influx of new "issues" groups that alienate people who used to be with you, etc.), but defining your terms as to what you're really looking for would help. While there's a lot of overlap, progressive, left, liberal, Democrat, etc., aren't all the same, and even then these have all varied over time and geographic region. So if you're looking for a "clear ideological framework" common to all these groups, then don't be distraught. It wasn't lost somewhere along the way. It never existed.

Politics in a democracy where everyone can vote is all about compromise.
posted by resurrexit at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: @overeducated_alligator

Could you please expand on the concessions FDR made to racist constituents? Or direct me to more information on this particular subject?
posted by evil holiday magic at 11:45 PM on September 19, 2011

Just coaxing the coals back to life here...

I found Mark Rosenfelder's analysis of the 20th century and what happened with liberalism to be very thought provoking.

Also, since nobody answered the FDR question: Basically he allowed the CCC and WPA to be segregated at the insistence of southern (white) Democrats and didn't push anti-lynching laws very hard. On the other hand, you have to see this in the context of the time, and he did do a lot for fair employment (look up FEPC). See Wikipedia for more detail.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:57 AM on October 18, 2011

How on earth did I not see that zompist had already posted in this very thread? Didn't even know he was on MeFi. Well the internet teaches us something new every day.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:12 PM on October 31, 2011

Response by poster: Having been one of the 292 people arrested at Occupy LA for civil disobedience, and having stood shoulder to shoulder with progressives ready to endure a snout full of teargas and pepper spray, and go to jail for their beliefs, I can answer my own question: They didn't.

We're back.
posted by evil holiday magic at 4:46 PM on December 7, 2011

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